McGarvey as a Preacher and Teacher

by Henry S. Ficklin
via Gospel Guardian, Vol. 10, No. 39, Feb. 5, 1959

In 1902, when I began as a student at Transylvania University, at Lexington, Kentucky, McGarvey was President of the College Of The Bible. These two institutions were on the same campus, but they were separately organized. It was McGarvey's desire, I fully believe, that they be separate and distinct, even though affiliated. Students enrolled in each institution could take courses in the other. But by keeping them separately organized, the College Of The Bible would not be involved in such worldly entanglements as football and dances. At the recent inauguration of Mr. Lunger as President of Transylvania, in September, 1958, one of the features of the program was an 'Inaugural Ball" attended by President Lunger and his wife, as I recall. McGarvey would never have tolerated such a thing as that, and he would not have been slow in saying so. We students of the College Of The Bible were taught that it was not right for us to go to the Theatre. I distinctly recall a plain talk by Brother McGarvey on that matter. He tried sincerely to make the College Of The Bible a truly spiritual institution, and to keep it aloof from the world and ungodliness.

During the years that I was there, McGarvey was the most influential teacher, or preacher, on the campus. He was known all over the world as a Bible scholar. Transylvania and the College Of The Bible had strong faculties, and were rated high, scholastically. I was in the classes of a number of able teachers, but McGarvey stood far above the others, both as to influence, and as to actual merit. Nor have I ever, since that time, known any teachers, either in or out of the Restoration movement, that had the stature of McGarvey. Next to my parents, he has been the greatest spiritual influence in my life.

Some of the other professors had the "Doctor Of Philosophy" degree. McGarvey did not have this degree, and he seemed to live happily without it. He needed no such props, or vain appendages as that. In fact, I heard him express his displeasure at being called "Doctor". Many preachers of today think that they must have this degree. And, unfortunately, a College advocating sound doctrine recently gave a list of its professors, and gave the term "Dr." before the names of nearly all of them. That, surely, is a sign of spiritual decay, and of departure from the simplicity of the gospel. McGarvey needed no such trappings of scholarship. Two or three years ago a preacher who had preached in a meeting in a northern state complained about the amount that the congregation gave him for the meeting, saying that he thought "a preacher should be paid according to the number of degrees that he had" . Let me repeat it McGarvey was opposed to all of this hollowness, all of this bombast, and all of this vain show. And, let us be done with it, brethren, lest we disgust sincere people. McGarvey's scholarship was of a high order, but he was just about as unconscious of it as Moses was of the shining of his face (Exodus 34:29).

At that time there was another member of the faculty who was well-known for his godliness, his spiritual penetration into the deep things of the Word of God, and for his unfaltering and unfeigned faith in the Bible as the infallible revelation of God. I refer to I. B. Grubbs. But Brother Grubbs's Biblical field was much more restricted than that of Brother McGarvey, nor did he have McGarvey's breadth of interest. Other members of the faculty, while having many admirable traits, had begun to capitulate before the spirit of the age, and had gone with the tide of innovation. They had adjusted themselves to the situation in the churches an increasing digression. They had lost it seemed to me, their "singleness of heart" and were tame and unimpressive, in comparison with McGarvey. This was because they did not have his faith and courage, nor his convictions. Preachers who do not have strong convictions do not really have anything to say.

Never did I hear McGarvey take a weak position on a moral issue. He met evil head-on. I cannot conceive of his taking a neutral position in regard to mixed swimming, or social drinking, or naked exposure And I am less capable of thinking of him as writing a defense of such moral leprosy. What has become of our sense of decency, our moral protest? And, brethren, no one would dare to defend such moral laxity, if a spiritual decline had not set in among us.

Once McGarvey took notice of a complaint that modernist and liberal brethren had been making about being "misunderstood". It is a bad sign, McGarvey said, if a man is frequently misunderstood. And he asked: "Who ever misunderstood me in regard to the integrity of the Bible?" When preachers are often misunderstood, it is an indication that they have been practicing double-talk, and are guilty of equivocation. They say things that are to be understood one way in one crowd, and another way in another crowd. But when a man, or a preacher, stands absolutely for the right, knows what he believes, and is not afraid to speak boldly, he is rarely misunderstood.

Now, let us think of McGarvey as a preacher. Robert Graham, one of his associates on the faculty of the College Of The Bible, is quoted by Professor Morro as saying that he had heard men who could preach greater sermons than McGarvey, "but taking him Sunday after Sunday, week in and week out, he was the best preacher he had ever heard." (Morro, BROTHER McGARVEY. p. 215) Moses E. Lard was preaching at Lexington for a part of the time while McGarvey was preaching to another congregation there. On Sunday mornings the boys at the dormitory would talk about where they were going to attend the service that morning. One of the students expressed the feeling of many when he said "If I knew that Lard was on his high horse, I would go to hear him. But I am not sure that he will be. So, I believe I will go to hear McGarvey, for he never disappoints us."

To what must we attribute the fact that "he never disappoints us"? Or, how shall we explain his influence as a preacher? What was the secret of his ability to edify people? Well, it is no secret at all. I often heard him in the Chapel service at the College, and I heard him preach at Chestnut Street. And, even after the lapse of these many years, I can still hear the intonations of his voice. I recall, very vividly, hearing him preach one Lord's Day morning on "The Centurion's Testimony" (Matthew 27:54). Those who heard him regarded him as both edifying and impressive. What is the explanation?

First, I want to tell you that his influence as a preacher was not due to eloquence,, or "excellency of speech." His sermons were gracious, but they were not brilliant. For McGarvey was not a brilliant mind. He had no dramatic talent. And I feel sure that, if he had possessed that ability, he would have repressed it. His grammar was good, and his use of words was correct. His manner of speech was never careless or slovenly. But he was never flowery. He was not a "Pulpit Orator", nor did he care to be. He would have abominated such a thing, knowing that it would make "the cross of Christ of none effect." A Christian's manner of dress ought to be so that it is not noticed, either for its slovenliness, or its finery. So with a preacher's manner of speaking, and his language. They should not be noticed for their bad grammar, or polish. McGarvey's choice of words was good, but he wanted to be understood, not admired. He was not striking in his appearance as he stood in the pulpit, but his manner was earnest and amiable. You felt that a man of God was speaking to you, and one that wanted to see you saved. He was serious, without being stern. His face was radiant, and often enlivened with a kindly smile. I am sure that he did not rely upon psychology, but upon divine assistance. I never saw about him the least pretence, or affectation, either in what he said, or in the way that he said it. I doubt that he ever took a course in "Speech". But, if he did, he happily forgot the most of it. When you heard him, you were not charmed or thrilled, but you were helped. You did not go away saying: "That preacher is a great speaker". But you did carry away in your heart a heavenly message.

I have pointed out a number of things which preachers often rely on, unfortunately, and have stated that these are not the explanation of McGarvey's influence as a preacher or a teacher. He did not want you to worship him, but to worship his Lord. He would have been a very poor pope.

Now, let us notice the true explanation of his ability to help us who heard him, with his sermons. In the first place, he was natural in his manner. He had no airs or tricks of oratory. I think of Jesus as he spoke to the multitudes, and as he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth. And I think that McGarvey's manner of speaking was very much like that of Jesus. He never acted or spoke insincerely. He had no sanctimoniousness about him. His voice did not have a "holy tone," which is supposed to befit one in the pulpit. He was like nature unadorned. Sunshine is not noisy, but it is effective.

Again, McGarvey's sermons were scriptural. I have a copy of McGarvey's "sermons", but I have not read all of them. Certainly, I don't want to preach his sermons, as so many do, I fear. And I don't think that McGarvey would want his students to preach the sermons of another as their own. But, if you could have heard him, or if you will read his sermons, you will he impressed by the fact that they are scriptural. The subjects are Biblical, the thoughts are the thoughts of the Bible, and the very words are often those that are used in the Bible. So, he had the gift of being able to wrap up great thoughts in small words. He obeyed the command of Paul to Timothy: "Preach the Word". He was never speculative. He let the Lord speak through him. You would learn what the New Testament taught by listening to McGarvey as he preached.

In the next place McGarvey was diligent in the preparation of his sermons. He did not give to his hearers an unpremeditated talk. He obeyed the injunction of Paul to Timothy: "Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed" (II Timothy 2:15). One of his associates on the faculty relates that McGarvey prepared every lesson diligently, even after he had taught these lessons for 50 years. I am confident that he would not stand up to preach without earnest, prayerful and studious preparation. Consequently, he did not become stale. He was not a lazy preacher. He studied hard, but he was not bookish.

Another characteristic of his preaching was that he had something to say. What he said was worth hearing. There was a great deal of solid food in his sermons. And what he said fitted life. He reached the hearts and the consciences of us who heard him. Here was something that we needed, and that is interesting to hearers. For they will be listened to who speak those things "that come home to men's business and bosoms". Recently, a preacher called my attention to the fact that there is an overemphasis on "Speech" and the courses teaching that, even in colleges advocating the return to New Testament Christianity. Would it not be better, my friend asked, for these young preachers to be taught to really have something to say, rather than spend so much time on how to say it? Churches will starve under such preaching. McGarvey, I repeat, had something to say, something from God's Word something that must be said, something that our souls needed. His sermons had the weight and impressiveness of divine authority. You were so occupied with heavenly thoughts themselves that you did not care to think about how it was said. Our souls are fed by the thoughts that Christ taught, but we think nothing at all about his gestures, or his manner of saying it. So, there was very little emptiness, very little hollowness, about his sermons.

One more explanation needs to be offered about McGarvey's impressiveness as a preacher, and that is Mc-Garvey himself. There was nothing about McGarvey, the man, to hinder the message that he was bringing. A great writer once made the statement that: "He who would not be frustrated of his hope to write well hereafter is laudable things ought himself to be a true poem". We knew that McGarvey was a godly man, and that he tried to live what he preached. He could be at ease in the presence of the great of this world, and he could pray at the bed-side of the most lowly Negro. He "stooped to conquer." I never saw anything artificial about him, nor any policy, nor any deceit. Admitting his faults, and his weaknesses, he was, nevertheless, a living embodiment of what he taught and preached. There was real manhood, Christian manhood, there.